On Showtime’s ‘Billions,’ Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis fight a brutal class war..
“Billions” is rooted in an intriguing triangle. It follows crusading U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who’s made his name going after Wall Street and has set his sights on hedge fund Bobby Axelrod (“Homeland” veteran Damian Lewis), a working-class guy who’s acquired great wealth, but retains a strategically deployed rough edge.
Bobby’s closest employee and one of his best friends is Wendy Rhoades (a terrific Maggie Siff, rescued from the purgatory of “Sons of Anarchy”), Chuck’s wife and the in-house psychiatrist at Bobby’s firm. The setup puts Bobby and Chuck in competition not just for professional power and preeminence, but for Wendy’s loyalties.
And Wendy has to reckon with her influence over both men’s brains, her abilities to make them better — or at least different — versions of themselves.
“Billions” is a show that treats power and money as concepts that start as neutral, and then explores how people use them. It’s a premise that appealed to co-star Damian Lewis.
“No head of state, president, prime minister, anyone, U.S. attorney, hedge fund billionaire, anyone with great power and influence, none of them will live a life without compromise,” he mused when we talked last year. “They will make decisions that compromise themselves, ethically, morally, weekly.”
“Billions” is also informed by the very specific conflict between money and power taking place in the battles between the financial industry and regulators in New York.
Bobby defines himself in part by his generosity towards the families of his colleagues who died on September 11; he happened to be out of the office when the planes hit the twin towers. This is an aspect of the storytelling that series co-creator Brian Koppelman says grew out of their — and New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin’s — discussions with people who work in the financial industry, many of whom mentioned the attacks as a formative event.
And Lewis sees September 11 and the financial crisis that took place in 2007 and 2008 as inextricably linked, subjects that no story about finance could possibly avoid; the pilot has a rancorous scene where Chuck confronts Bobby about the way Chuck believes Bobby uses September 11 as a shield from criticism.
“Where I come from, we still have a class structure, and it still adheres to birth, the sound of your voice,” said Lewis, who is British. “Here it always struck me that class is not so accentuated, though I would have to say, living on the East Coast I get much more of a sense of class, who the true Americans are, whatever that means. The old European money, the first settlers who came, the WASP-y Ivy League-y families. And Paul’s [Giamatti] character seems to come from that background, and I come from a more Irish immigrant street blue-collar kind of family.”
“What is the idea of success here in America?” Lewis continued. “It still seems to me that it’s an aspirational society, it has great mobility, or at least that’s the dream, that’s what’s peddled to you by politicians. … That you can come, you can make money and if you have money it sort of negates any idea of class. Just, you made it here.”
Lewis, having recently played Sgt. Nicholas Brody on “Homeland” and Henry VIII in “Wolf Hall,” knows a thing or two about the relationship between public image and private life.
“It’s always interesting when you meet somebody who has a sense of their own destiny, when you meet them in life. They’re compelling people. … Somebody who does is probably going to be the guy who changes the world in some way. And I think all of those guys have a sense of their destiny,” Lewis said when I asked about how the three parts related to each other.
“I think Brody is by far the most damaged. Brody, of course, within ‘Homeland,’ in the first season represented threat. He was dangerous. But he was dangerous always, in my mind, because he was a victim of circumstance. He was a victim of an ill-conceived war and a decision to go to war, and then a powerful guru figure. He was really never stable. I think there’s something very stable about Bobby. I think he knows himself very well.”
But the game in “Billions” is a constantly shifting one. And however well Bobby, Chuck and Wendy know each other, they live in a world where pleasure and pain come from surprising places.